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Wheeler retiring Classic Chorale baton; more musical stanzas are on horizon

Jim Wheeler

When the Classic Chorale's vocal cords are silenced after "Christmas Amen" Sunday, Jim Wheeler will be retiring the baton.

He is stepping down after a "short tenure" as director of the vocal group, this his third concert.

"I'd love to stay on; it's been very rewarding musically," he said. But "health issues" preclude this commitment on his program.

Wheeler will continue as director of the Hubbard United Methodist Church choir, tune pianos and nurture a few students.

"At 80, it's time to ease up a bit."

But his legacy will continue.

Wheeler has elevated musical stature in the Park Rapids area since 1991, when he and Solon Green co-founded the Park Rapids Area Community Band. The first concert was Dec. 7, 1991, marking the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

He directed the band for the next 13 years, until he assumed the role of music director at Hubbard United Methodist. "I decided I couldn't do both."

Wheeler brings a varied musical background to the podium. During the Korean War he was selected as a member of the 541st Air Force Band. After his tour of duty, he headed to college and embarked on a career in teaching instrumental music, while also directing church choirs.

He taught at the College of St. Thomas (now the University of St. Thomas) until 1978, when he retired from teaching and began fundraising in a professional capacity for schools and other groups in St. Paul.

He moved to Park Rapids in 1981, covering the northern tier of the state for his employer.

"But I missed music, directing a performance group," he said.

He decided to strike up the band.

"I have always envied people who have music as a hobby," he said, as opposed to their main vocation. "For 15 years, I was out of touch," until he picked up the community band baton.

Then, Nadine, now wife of 12 years, "grabbed me and told me I needed to sing," he said of his initial role with Classic Chorale. He'd met her in the band.

"I have come to appreciate choral music much more due to the intimacy of words," he said. "Band has colors and contrasts. Choral music has text. Both mediums produce musical thrills."

His favored band composer is John Williams, a contemporary musician. He reveres John Rutter for his choral works, one of his new pieces, "Carol of the Magi," to be on the weekend programs.

The performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Johns Lutheran will open with "Christmas Alleluia," featuring brass and organ.

A special arrangement of "Oh Come, Oh Come, Emanuel" will stir auditory senses, as will a "challenging" rendition of "Ukrainian Bell Carol." And two arrangements of "Jingle Bells," the original and "souped-up" version, promise to "appeal to kids of all ages.

"I take great pride in providing a program with audience appeal, while challenging the Classic Chorale," the director said.

He may be taking his last bow before the Classic Chorale audience, but his musical aspirations continue.

His "bucket list" includes forming a 30-member wind ensemble to perform works he's arranged and composed. "So the kids have a record," he said of his five children.

And he intends to form a 16-member dance band to perform music from the World War II era.

"That's the good stuff."

Jason Wright has been chosen as interim director of the Classic Chorale.